For all the NHL goalie tandems in recent years, nearly every champion has won behind one goaltender playing the bulk of the games.
The Kraken has a choice ahead on how it will handle its two options. There’s Chris Driedger, the expansion draft pick from the Florida Panthers who was likely expecting to handle the majority of contests. Then the Kraken signed a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded each season to the league’s top goalie.
Philipp Grubauer’s presence changes the equation. Given the money committed to Driedger – a $3.5 million salary-cap hit for three seasons, with a full no-movement clause – it’s tough to believe he’ll be sidelined too often.
Grubauer, though, isn’t the kind of goalie expected to be in a tandem. Last season en route to the Avalanche’s second-round playoff exit, Grubauer posted a .922 save percentage and started 39 of their 56 games. He went 30-9-1 (playing in 40 games) and had a league-best 1.95 goals-against average. He will make $5.9 million per season over six years.
The Grubauer addition meant goodbye to Vitek Vanecek, shipped back to the Washington Capitals less than two weeks after he was picked in the expansion draft. The Vanecek-Driedger pair combined for a $4.216 million cap hit; a far cry from that of Grubauer and Driedger.
“I think we needed two guys, and they are going to play,” Kraken general manager Ron Francis told reporters after signing Grubauer. “We think both guys will play. I don’t want to speak for the coach. He has final say. But I would assume that Grubauer is not playing (70% of the team’s games next season), and Driedger would a lot more in those games.”
Goaltender tandems have been the trend for the past decade, with varying success. The Boston Bruins got to the 2019 Cup Final behind Tuukka Rask handling the entire postseason workload, despite Jaroslav Halak starting 37 games in the regular season. The Vegas Golden Knights had two starting-caliber goalies in Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury, but they traded Fleury this offseason.
In the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, 66 goalies started at least 10 games. A condensed schedule and more back-to-back games will do that. As the schedule returns to a normal, 82-game slate for 2021-22, the split duties will likely lean back toward a 1A goalie for most squads.
Tandems took off before the wacky schedule was an issue, though.
In the past 25 years, 19 of the starting goalies collected all 16 wins en route to being a Stanley Cup champion. Teams built to win have that one guy they can rely on in the toughest moments.
That doesn’t mean having a legitimate 1B goalie in the regular season will restrict an elite goalie in the postseason; again, look at the 2019 Bruins, for whom Rask played every postseason contest and had the most regular-season rest of his career.
One rare exception is 2017, when the Pittsburgh Penguins won with Matt Murray after Fleury started every game in net in the first two rounds. So it can happen; it’s just rare.
Playing one workhorse goalie is the recipe to winning a Cup Final, and the stats back that up.
But the demands of the modern NHL make it near impossible for one goalie to make the entire regular-season run on his own.
“So it’s always good to have a good tandem,” Grubauer told reporters during his introductory Zoom call. “I don’t think one guy can play 70 games and be fresh for the playoffs. … It’s important to have two guys.”
So the Kraken aren’t in a unique position. Plenty of teams are projected to have more than one goalie make a mark in the regular season. Dallas has four goalies – Ben Bishop, Anton Khudobin, Jake Oettinger and Braden Holtby – to sift through. The New York Rangers have split time between Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.
Postseason squads such as the New York Islanders have had success with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. In Florida, where Driedger departed, the Panthers have decisions to make with Sergei Bobrovsky and rookie Spencer Knight.
Those teams had some postseason struggles while their crease became a game of musical chairs, with the Cup champion Lightning and every-game starter Andrei Vasilevskiy handling them.
Some elite goalies succeed with a heavy workload exclusively. Carey Price, who led the Montreal Canadiens to a surprise Cup Final appearance, is an example. His regular-season workload has been slowed to prevent his body from being beat up, and the approach worked this past postseason. For much of the two-month run, Price was the best goalie in the league.
Jake Allen, the Canadiens’ backup, played 27 regular-season games. That was enough for Price to be fresh for the postseason and make his near-historic run.
Perhaps that’s the most realistic blueprint for what the Kraken tandem could be.
Given the money commitment and playoff history, when the postseason rolls around, if the Kraken makes it, Grubauer likely would be the workhorse. How the regular season pans out remains to be seen, but Driedger seeing significant time and keeping Grubauer fresh for the playoffs shouldn’t change what has proven to be a successful postseason approach across the league.
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